Kelly Joe Phelps displays considerable invention in his adaptation of the brilliant instrumental part Skip James originally composed for “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”, first recorded in 1931. There’s a stylistic transition from that highly idiomatic guitar performance, emulated on record only by James’s Bentonia, Mississippi neighbour Jack Owens, into a modern idiom favoured by guitarist-singer-songwriters over the past 30 years. Phelps achieves an excellent realisation of the James song into something none the worse for being not quite blues. It’s not that he couldn’t replay what James played 75 years back—or during his short time after rediscovery, 40 years ago now. To say that is to emphasise what an able musician he is.
He also works a transformation with Blind Gary Davis’s “I Am the Light of the World”, a gospel song by a more versatile virtuoso than James, and an outstanding performer in the very different Carolina style. The lessons Stefan Grossman made available in performance and transcription have gone into something else.
Phelps could, I presume, deliver straight blues performances in his somewhat hoarse baritone. I’ve not heard the recordings which reference sources suggest demonstrate that. What is under review here is a set of nine vocal-and-guitar performances of mostly six to eight minutes’ length (the performance of the James song is nearly ten minutes long and never drags), the remaining seven being of Phelps’s own usually fairly unusual sets of lyrics.
He seems hardly to have combined verbal inspiration into any very conventional sort of song. “Waiting for Marty”, the closer, ends each stanza with the musically telling refrain “Waiting for Marty to get home” and the whole mood moves into the pathos of that line. What precedes it, however, is a passage of freely or loosely associated images, sometimes one or even two lines of consecutive conventionally intelligible statement, but sometimes even a single line just puts phrases or words together. Might have been interesting on the live gig where this solo set seems to have been recorded, but for listening under less ephemeral circumstances?
It would matter decisively, whether he had done what he appears to have thought he’d done—by way of evocation, allusion, atmospheric, or broader reference—if he hadn’t sung with confidence in his lyrics. But he seems not to doubt them. Of course he does have the advantage of being able to dance his words, and even unrhymed lines, free of the sort of counter-emphasis conventional conversational sorts of meanings set into lines. If I sing “a pretty girl as a pretty nun” in a context where no precise meaning stands out, the rhythm can be anything. If I make a plain statement like the “waitin’ for Marty” one meaning imparts a different rhythm. In some respects Phelps lets himself off easy. The lack of straight sequential meanings simply spreads words and phrases across the virtuoso guitar music.
Now and then there are unsettling lines, among more oblique ones—“burny pocked his arms with a pack of camel lights”—and a general depiction of something at the least alarming, pathological in contrast with the refrain “and it’s not so far to go to find trouble”.
There seems to be a desire to over-condense story and reference, compiling lyrics with a heaping up of evocative snippets. A sense of gaps emerges, and instead of evocation a feeling of vagueness, of not condensation but omission. This almost sounds like a standard criticism of the celebrated English poet Geoffrey Hill, but eventually the sense of Phelps having supposed that he’s said more than he has will incline some listeners to think his material “weird”.
The result is probably good in parts, but I wonder how the real oddness of some lyrics might disquiet listeners after a little longer than a critic can allow himself/herself to relisten to a review copy before writing. There’s a cause of disquiet at odds with the gentle and often beautiful music. I’ll declare no conclusion but advise potential listeners that they might find something incoherent and unlikeable. It’s worth suggesting that while there’s impressive evidence here that Kelly Joe Phelps is an exceptionally talented musician, guitarist, and performer, he has perhaps not distinguished himself in words.